Rev. Stacy Swain
This passage that Sandra read for us today is referred to as “the Temptation of Jesus.” In fact, my bible actually prints that above this text in bold as the title of the section. But it has always made me wonder, why does Jesus need to be tempted before he starts his ministry?
I would have thought that Jesus’ baptism would have been commission enough to get him started. I would have thought that it would have been enough that the heavens opened, and a dove descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven spoke saying “this is my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Surely that was all Jesus needed, right?
But I guess it isn’t. For in all three Gospel accounts, Jesus emerges from the baptismal blessing at the River Jordan and turns not towards Galilee to begin the work for which he was born, but instead he is lead or driven depending on which Gospel account you read, by the Spirit, into the wilderness.
One commentary answers that: “the purpose of this passage was to prove that Jesus was the Son of God by “defeating Satan in open combat.” Prove Jesus is the Son of God? Prove to whom? To Jesus? To Satan? To all of us? But that still begs the question “why wasn’t the baptism proof enough?”
Another way that this “temptation” passage is explained is that it is a test of Jesus, a test to see if he is ready. That despite God’s affirmation of Jesus as God’s beloved, God seems to needs a bit more assurance and so God sets up this kind of entrance exam to see whether Jesus is really up to and ready for his ministry of the Good News that is to be entrusted to him?
Is that what is going on in this passage?
If so then it makes sense that Jesus would need those forty days before the encounter with the Devil in the wilderness as a kind of spiritual boot camp to get ready for this great open combat; or those forty days as an intensive study session for the test that is coming. It would make sense that those forty days were all about preparing for what was really important, the test, combat that was to come.
But what happens if we shift the accent in this passage from the encounter with the devil and place it instead on that time, those forty days spent in the wilderness. After all forty days is a long time, but the encounter with the devil seems to have taken very little. Perhaps no more than a few minutes or hours, or a day, who knows. Perhaps the encounter with the devil then is nothing more than a coda to the real work and import of the passage which was and is those forty days. How would that change the way we see Jesus and through his example, how we see ourselves?
The number forty, you know, often shows up in the Bible. The waters of the great flood in Noah’s time covered the earth for forty days before subsiding. The Hebrew people, newly freed from the dominion of Pharaoh were in the wilderness of the Sinai for forty years before entering the Promised Land. Moses was on top of Mt Sinai with God for forty days as he received from God the covenant of the Ten Commandments. And Jesus now is in the wilderness for forty days before the devil shows up with these three challenges.
Forty, in Biblical parlance, connotes a kind of generative space, a pausing to give time for what is – to be completed.
So I wonder if what is happens here in the wilderness is a more of germination time for Jesus – It is not a time apart from the baptismal blessing– a time for him to prove or to test if he is really worthy of it, but instead a time for that God given blessing as beloved to really come home to him fully. To fill him completely. Jesus is fully human after all and may very well need time to mediate on and awaken to that startling reality that he is beloved of God and that God is well pleased, well pleased with him! The Spirit is wise and seems to know that that the blessing of being beloved and the assurance of being well pleasing is not one we humans know well and that Jesus may need some time to absorb it all. And so the Spirit gives Jesus that time by creating a generative space, a retreat in the wilderness, outside the domestication and demands of life to let the fullness of who Jesus is as beloved, the starting place of all he will do, complete him.
When I read this passage branded as the “the temptation of Jesus” in this new light of these forty days as being a time of integration and completion, the passage then takes on a completely different resonance for me.
Temptation, afterall, connotes struggle, right? If I am tempted by that open bag of potato chips I feel a conflict inside of myself, a battle between my desire for that salty greasy loveliness and my will that knows those chips are not good for me at all.
But did you notice? There is no struggle here. And the Bible knows struggle. Remember in the book of Genesis when that strange otherworldly figure comes to Jacob in the night and wrestles with him so strenuously that Jacobs hip is dislocated. That is a struggle! (Genesis 32:22-32).
But there is none of that here. We don’t get the sense that Jesus is waging an inner battle with himself or an overt one with the devil. We do not get the sense that the outcome of the struggle is uncertain that it could go either way. It is not drawn on and does not seem to require must energy from Jesus at all.
Instead, Jesus enters into what we term temptation already in complete mastery of the situation. He is decided, calm, centered in himself. There is no struggle. He just states what he has come to know as truth and then moves on: “One does not live by bread alone, Worship the Lord your God, serve only God; do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
So perhaps the point of this passage is that there actually is no temptation, at least not for Jesus. Perhaps the blessing at the Jordan and the forty days in the wilderness have somehow delivered Jesus to the far side of temptation. Perhaps he has found completion in himself and in his relationship with God. Nothing more is needed. Nothing can hook him for nothing in him is lacking.
And beginning as complete, beginning completely has profound ramifications for his ministry.
After this wilderness time, Jesus is able to move out into his ministry fully present to those he is with and to the power of God’s love that is with him. He is able to be fully present because he is not seeking something for himself in his encounters but is only seeking to be of service to God. His presence is wholly other directed in pure and loving compassion. He does not use others to prop up or complete something that is lacking in himself. Jesus is centered in and completed by his being beloved of God. Nothing else is needed. That is everything.
This is not to say that Jesus does not need connection with others for we know he does. That is the fabric of his ministry. From the get go he calls others to come with him and weaves together lives in a community that stretches across time and space. And that is the whole point really. Jesus calls people to him and forges community so that people may know what he knows, to live as he lives, to be complete as the beloved of God as he is complete and to have that be the beginning of all that is done. So that from that starting place, all may be freed to love in the way that Jesus loves and in the way that the world needs.
But we are not there yet, are we? I don’t think so. I’m not at least. We tend to set off into each day not complete in and of ourselves but looking for ways in which others can complete us. We look in the face of others around us to see mirrored back to us who are to be. Our identity is a reflected identity not one that come from deep within. Am I good enough? Well what do people say about me? Am I important enough? Well how do people react when I walk into the room or when I open my mouth to speak? Am I valued enough? Are people impressed by the car I drive and jewelry I wear?
And that is a slippery slope for sure. Just this week, Peter Seagle the host of “Wait Wait don’t tell me” on NPR quipped that Valentine’s day is really a set up by the card, chocolate and flower industry to reveal our inadequacy in meeting the expectations of those we love.
Whether we are trying to fill other people’s needs or waiting for others to fill ours, we get ourselves into a distracted tangle of tests, temptations and failings that take us way from what we really ought to be doing and that is following Jesus and bringing God’s love more and more fully into the world.
The temptation in this passage, perhaps then is really ours. For aren’t we the ones that get caught up with and entangled by the temptations that the devil brings?
Aren’t we deeply hungry for something that seems to lie beyond our grasp? Is there a deep shame within us of not being enough, forever failing? Is there an emptiness inside that we thing only someone else can fill for us?
Or are we so full of pride and self import that we think all ought to heed our word and opinion? Do we listen to others only so that they will stop speaking and finally listen to what it is we have to say? Do we wish that others would just get their act together and step in line with what it is that we know to be best? How tiresome truly are those who just don’t seem able to see as clearly as we do?
Or are we so awash by the showiness of our day? Where we are instructed and encouraged to put on a happy face and conform to an “I’m great! How are you?” attitude where going deeper than surface appearance is taboo and honest sharing down-right discouraged?
How exhausting to set out each day into this charged energy field of inadequacy seeking affirmation. Maybe that is why zombies and vampires are so popular in the movies and video games these days. Are they a commentary on our culture, that we are dead to ourselves and must leech life off others in order to live?
Can you imagine, really I ask you, can you imagine in that sense that creative imagining brings into being what is waiting to be. Can you imagine what it would be to live our lives out of the blessing of beloved and the affirmation of having God well pleased with us? To have the starting place of all that we do be the peace of completeness and the calm of being centered in God’s love. To know in your heart of hearts in the words of the Apostle Paul that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you form the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39).
We may not have forty days in the wilderness outside the domestication and demands of life but we do have Lent. We do have these next forty days. Not so that we may enter spiritual boot camp in order to prepare for open combat with the devil or an intensive study session for a test we must take all to prove that we are somehow worthy of the love that has been given us and the good news that has been entrusted with us to share. But instead so that we have time to let God’s love and acceptance germinate within us and complete us. To let the fullness of who we are as beloved be the starting place of all we do. So that we too may go out into the world not seeking something for ourselves but only seeking to be of service. So that our presence may be wholly other directed in pure and loving compassion. Let this be our 40 days. Amen
 Life Application Bible Commentary (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.: Wheaton, Illiniois). 1997.